Twenty-five years after the founding of St. Ignatius Institute, a Great Books program at the University of San Francisco, the work of longtime directors John Galten and John Hamlon was thriving. The program was bringing bright students and good money to the Jesuit university. Enthusiasm among students and their parents was high.
So it came as the equivalent of an academic earthquake when, on Jan. 19, Galten and Hamlon were summoned to a dean's office and summarily dismissed by order of USF's president, Jesuit Father Stephen Privett.
The St. Ignatius Institute, the two were told, was being “consolidated” with another department for budgetary reasons. Effective immediately, their services as program co-directors would no longer be needed.
There is much to be said about the how and why of this action (even The Wall Street Journal has weighed in on that question). But, for those who graduated from the program, the most important thing that needs to be said is that the St. Ignatius Institute was, in many ways, exactly what Catholic higher education should be.
It was truly alma mater — a “nurturing mother” — to scores of students like me. It trained our minds, our hearts and our wills, and it literally changed us forever.
Mind, Heart and Will
For me, it happened in the bleak moors of Oxford University, where I studied in my junior year with the institute. I experienced in a small way what many people throughout history have experienced, from Solomon to Albert the Great's Paris students to John Keats reading a new translation of Homer. I fell in love with wisdom.
Not that I was a model student. Far from it. I had transferred to the St. Ignatius Institute by mistake, almost, because the University of San Francisco has low scholastic-aptitude test (SAT) requirements. I had heard about the great-books program because I wanted to have lunch with a girl who wanted to talk about it. She explained that it was an academic program that replaced normal core-curriculum requirements in various “majors” with a period by period reading of the Great Books, from the pre-Socratics to the senior year's emphasis on the 20th century.
She was a friend from childhood whom I hadn't seen in years and haven't seen since. We happened to run into each other in Tucson, Ariz., and I happened to mention that I was considering transferring to the University of San Francisco, and she happened to have forms for admission into the St. Ignatius Institute.
The program offered a Junior year abroad in Oxford University in England or Innsbruck, Austria. I chose Oxford and the experience worked the kind of magic on me that the St. Ignatius Institute existed to work.
I ploughed through St. Thomas Aquinas and suddenly saw the truths I'd stumbled on in Aristotle and Plato taking a distinct shape, where before they had been like random shards of light. I read Shakespeare and recognized the allusions he made to the Greeks and Romans I'd met at the institute.
For the first time, I realized that history wasn't the story of succeeding generations making their own realities, but the story of one human family contemplating the same truth and, in a dialogue across the ages, grappling together with the same thorny questions.
When my Oxford classmates and I came back to San Francisco, everything seemed to have changed. But it was us who had changed. It was our senior year, when we immersed ourselves in the “moderns” — and that year, boy, did we ever. Its unique situation, an academic program apart from and yet within the university, meant that there was a tension between the school and the institute.
We threw ourselves into the middle of several campus controversies. There was the matter of the university using student funds for a pro-abortion group, which we opposed strenuously. There was the matter of the Knights of Columbus being briefly banned from the school's lineup of school clubs. And then there were the campus's first homosexual activists organizing and seeking school funding.
We in the institute had the reputation of being a thorn in the side of the university. In my senior year, institute students were setting the agenda in the student government and the student newspaper, and not everyone liked it.
For better or worse, we were known as the pious ones on campus — as well as the ones too willing at times to prove that we weren't so pious after all. But in addition to influencing campus policies, we were also eager to build a faith life on campus.
We populated and perpetuated the 10 p.m. weekday Mass. Students organized rosaries and began a Legion of Mary chapter; the institute itself organized symposiums and talks on religious topics. When Pope John Paul II visited San Francisco in 1986, he praised one institute-run program that he was told of: the monthly all-night adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.
The St. Ignatius Institute, without even trying, converted many of us to the Catholic faith. Some formally entered the Church because of the institute. Others, like myself, converted even though, on the outside, it didn't necessarily look like we needed to.
The institute classes didn't emphasize the faith in a heavy-handed way. It was always there, but the courses were interested in learning, not believing. But from learning came believing.
Plato's cave and his disastrous Republic got us thinking about truth vs. appearances, and man's utopian dreams vs. the Church. The Old Testament class, taught by a Birkenstocked Berkeley woman, brought us through the literary genres of the books to the unmistakable conclusion that something more was at work here. The 20th Century Catholic Literary Revival class introduced us to novelists and poets who saw our own times through the lens of faith.
But the crown jewel in the Catholic curriculum of the St. Ignatius Institute was the “Revelation and Christology” class taught by Jesuit Father Joseph Fessio, one of the institute's cofounders. The class had only three texts: Chesterton's Everlasting Man, C.S. Lewis' Miracles and Vatican II's Lumen Gentium. The homework was always just one chapter, but we were quizzed on the homework at each class. The result: We actually read these works with full attention. Protestants who took Revelation and Christology with were not likely to be Protestant much longer. And nominal Catholics often weren't just nominal anymore.
This newfound faith led institute students to do things they would not have otherwise done.
After the earthquake of '89, a group of institute students walked en masse to St. Mary's hospital to volunteer. They were turned away, and helped shuttle students and organize relief efforts in the Marina District instead. Institute students often helped out at the nearby Gift of Love AIDS hospice run by the Missionaries of Charity. The nuns especially needed men's help to help bathe the AIDS patients or chat with the patients and ease their loneliness.
Institute students were committed to social justice on a number of fronts. They were leaders in the campus Amnesty International group when I was there — as well as the Students United for Life. They went to Mexico and Latin America to fight poverty, and did pro-life work in the city. Several got arrested at abortion clinics or, worse, were hounded by the formidable women of BayCOR (Bay Area Coalition against Operation Rescue).
A Door Closes
In all these ways, the institute formed our minds, our hearts and our wills. It made us Catholic men and women. It gave us some of the sweetest and most intense memories of our lives. And then it launched us out into the world. In short, it was a mother — our alma mater.
Its loss will be felt beyond its circle of alumni. That's because the institute was also a model of Catholic education, accomplishing just what Pope John Paul II calls for in his 1995 apostolic constitution for higher education.
“It is the honor and responsibility of a Catholic university to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth,” he writes (No. 4). Institutions so consecrated are “increasingly necessary for the encounter of the Church with the development of the sciences and with the cultures of our age,” he adds, (No. 9).
If the Church is to face the third millennium in a meaningful way, it will need institutions of higher learning, like the institute, that are not afraid to proclaim that truth exists, and that it is knowable.
The claim is being made that the St. Ignatius Institute will continue. Those who took the time to know the institute know better. Its name, perhaps, will be retained. But our mother is gone.
We can take great comfort, however, that her legacy will live on in her sons and daughters who know that there are a thousand theologies, but only one faith.
Tom Hoopes is the Register's executive editor.